Posts filed under ‘poetry’

The Poetry of Psychoenergonomics

While an undergraduate at the University of Tampa, I was assigned to read Leaping Poetry, which is subtitled An Idea with Poems and Translations chosen by Robert Bly.  The one concept that stuck with me from the book was the “lizard brain”:  for Bly, the wild, “leaping” poetry of Spanish poets like Federico Garcia Lorca, Cesar Vallejo, and Pablo Neruda manifests a kind of emotional surrealism that leaps among the three brains Bly identifies as the “lizard brain,” the “mammal brain,” and the “new brain.”  These three brains are all present in our 21st century mind and manifest the evolution of the brain from its beginnings.  When I picked up Bly’s work again, I discovered that he employs the language of energy flow in presenting this idea, and he hints at the possibility of directing energy from one part of the brain to the other, much like the concept of “psychoenergonomics” I have put forward in this blog.

According to Bly, the  lizard brain is equivalent to the limbic system, the emotional part of the brain that I call “the fear factory.”  This is the part of the brain focused on survival and “fight or flight”:  “The presence of fear produces a higher energy input to the reptile brain” (60).  Then the mammal brain evolved, wrapping itself around the limbic node; this newer brain focused on communal love and care.  “Evidently in the mammal brain there are two nodes of energy: sexual love and ferocity. (The reptile brain has no ferocity: it simply fights coldly for survival.)” (60).  The “new brain” is equivalent to the neo-cortex, the brain tissue of which “is incredibly complicated, more so than the other brains, having millions of neurons per square inch.  Bly speculates that “the parables of Christ, and the remarks of Buddha evidently  involve instructions on how to transfer energy from the reptile brain to the mammal brain, and then to the new brain. A ‘saint’ is someone who has managed to move away from the reptile and the mammal brains and is living primarily in the new brain” (62).

Bly goes on to suggest that “the three brains must be competing for all the available energy at any moment. . . Whichever brain receives the most energy, that brain will determine the tone of that personality. . . .” (62).  Spiritual growth, he continues, “depends on the ability to transfer energy.  Energy that goes normally to the reptile brain can be transferred to the mammal brain, some of it at least; energy intended  for the mammal brain can be transferred to the new brain” (64).  He suggests that meditation is a way to transfer energy from the reptile or “lower” brain center to the mammal and new or “upper” brain centers (similar to a previous post about the Dalai Lama).

The poet is one who should try to inhabit all three brains, tapping all of them in the process of writing a poem: the poet as brain-energy-manager.


17 October 2009 at 2:06 am Leave a comment

Energy and Spirituality

I just finished reading Mary Oliver’s book of poems titled Thirst.  I was prompted to write about it here after reading the epigraph, quoted from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?”  Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven.  His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

The least I would do, I thought, would be to post this quote.  Perhaps it could speak for itself!  But it’s so beautiful, I will try to explain what about these words is appealing to me.

Just as an aside, I always thought Oliver was a Unitarian Universalist, because she is so often quoted during UU services.  For example, I recited her poem “Summer Day” during my friend Reverend Tony Lorenzen‘s ordination ceremony when he became a UU minister.  But after reading Thirst, which details her discovery of faith while or after dealing with her partner’s death, I don’t think so anymore, for there is direct reference to the bread and the cup of Christian ritual.   While the deep reverence for nature still shines through these poems (“My work,” she says in the opening line of the opening poem, “is loving the world.”), she now overtly uses religious language to express the awe and gratitude that her poems have always so wonderfully expressed.  Whereas before she wrote, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is” (in “Summer Day”), she now prays directly to God in the poems themselves.  Some of the poem titles indicate this:  “Making the House Ready for the Lord,” “Coming to God: First Days,” “The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist,” “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” “On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate” and so on).  One poem, titled “Praying,” is instructions on how to pray:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The power of her poetry is not at all diminished as a result of this turn toward the holy and the explicit language of reverence, and I don’t find it distracting as I might in the work of others with less skill and sensitivity.  You can see that she still maintains the beautiful simplicity and humility of her previous books.

So, anyway, back to the epigraph.  As a good number of this blogs’ entries indicate, I like to read and write about energy–the science of it, not the vague new-age mysticism that is popular these days.  But I think that poetic expressions of energetics as seen in this quote above are not far from truth understood (conceptual-)metaphorically (see entries in my category “metaphorical concepts” for more detail on conceptual metaphors).  In the quote, a very spiritual man asks what he can do beyond praying, meditating, etc–all of the common and recognizable forms of spiritual practice.  He is told to “become all flame.”

One purpose of my focus on energy studies–I’ve been calling it “energonomics” to suggest a new field of study that can unify many disciplines across the academy–is to try to better understand energy flow and to identify how we can use energy more efficiently at all levels:  from our own, personal management of energy (caloric intake, exercise regimes, emotional control) to a broader application of the concept to global concerns about climate change, deforestation, and resource management in general.  I believe that it is possible to “burn more brightly,” to become more energetic and active in changing the world for the better, to live more reverently and awe-fully and enthusiastically (enthusiasmos in Greek meaning “to be inspired as if by a God”), to sustain a high-energy fully-engaged “spirituality in action” (as Parker Palmer writes in The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring).

If the word “spirituality” turns you off, think of it in its etymological sense meaning “breath”:  in this sense, spirituality in action would translate to “breath in action,” or, simply, just being alive–but being alive in the fullest sense of the word, in the way that all life is alive on this planet.  In the words of Francois Jullien, writing in Vital Nourishment,  “‘spirit’ does not mean an entity opposed to the body but refers to an endless unfolding of one’s abilities by way of refinement” (115).  For Jullien, “The question then becomes how best to prolong one’s life, since the possibility of doing so  depends entirely on how we manage things” (121).

And how can we best prolong our lives?  By learning to “live like climax ecosystems” (Schneider & Sagan, Into the Cool p. 296); by taking care of our bodies, exercising regularly, and living optimally;  by joining with others in purposeful activity; by avoiding fear and other destructive emotions; by “feeding our breath-energy” in the words of Jullien:  “Thus it is not my ‘soul’ or even my ‘body’ that I ‘nourish’ but my ‘breath-energy.’  In the end, my internal dynamism is the most important thing to nourish” (Vital Nourishment 80).

And so it is that we can become all flame–to be filled with an energy that can light up others, to burn like a sun in the sky, to let the energy that comes to us flow through us and beyond us, unimpeded, to do the work of creating ever-more complex thoughts in the noosphere.

29 December 2008 at 2:23 pm Leave a comment

A Poetics of Energy Flow

I just chose the winner of the 2008 Anabiosis Press Chapbook Contest:  William Keener’s Gold Leaf on Granite.  The poem I chose as the example for the announcement page is one titled “Take This Page,” a poem that embodies the awareness of energy flow, of “emergy” (embodied energy), that my concept of energonomics tries to express.  I will post the poem in its entirety:

Take This Page

Look past
the distraction of words,
our endless procession
of letters.

In the presence of white,
touch the page itself,
this rectangle,
this empty room,

a place for meditation,
if we ignore
the black scuff marks
on its ivory floor.

Let natural light
reflect the textures
of felted fibers,
cotton and flax,

egg shell, bread dough,
wool and bone,
the pressed shirt,
the linen shroud,

smooth, uncreased,
a sheet of paper deep
as any world we enter
through a book.

With the whorls
of our fingertips
we can read beneath
the watermarks,

between the laid lines,
faint patterns
left by the mesh
where pale pulp dried,

the cellulose in its slurry,
the wood chips, sawdust,
splinters, bark,
the cambium, the core

of a tree giving ground,
a legion of trees, a forest,
the billion leaves
they gird on every year,

their green machinery,
the sugars in the sap,
oxygen, carbon, lignin,
every molecule made

with heat, the photons
charging through space
from the flares of our sun,
its fiery hydrogen

burned into this room,
written into this page,
this book,
this volume of light.

This is a powerful poem for many reasons.  I especially like the syntactic build-up at the end of the poem:  you can feel the energy building as you are swept along by the syntax, as the poet leads us from the page that we are reading to the pulp of the page and through it to the very photons flowing from the sun that made possible the life of the tree which we have translated into “this book/this volume of light.”  The poem is wonderful insofar as it introduces and embodies all of these complex scientific concepts without burdening the reader with jargon or complicated language.  It brings us to an awareness of our basis in energy–it reminds us that we are beings of energy, that all, ultimately, is energy.

Congratulations to William Keener for having the clarity of mind and simplicity of insight to recognize and capture these truths in a truly beautiful way.

1 October 2008 at 8:34 pm Leave a comment


I picked up a book of Loren Eiseley’s essays at the local library book sale.  It is a kind of “new and selected essays” titled The Star Thrower.  In one essay titled “Man the Firemaker,” he speak of man as being “a consuming fire”: “Man…is himself a flame.  He has burned through the animal world and appropriated its vast stores of protein for his own” (23).  His mastery of fire was a kind of management of existing energy sources (an “energonomics”), as Eiseley points out:

Fire shortens the digestive process.  It breaks down tough masses of flesh into food that the human stomach can easily assimilate. Fire made the difference that enabled man to expand his numbers rapidly and to press on from hunting to more advanced cultures. Yet we take fire so much for granted that this first great upswing in human numbers, this first real gain in the seizure of vast quantities of free energy, has to a remarkable degree eluded our attention. (22)

My Fireman poems play with this same metaphor.  They invoke not the modern-day fighter of house and building fires but “Man the Firemaker,” the fire-manager, beings of energy descended from and children of the sun itself.

27 September 2008 at 3:59 am Leave a comment

The Energy in Poetry

I recently read the YA “verse novel” Your Own, Silvia by Stephanie Hemphill, an excellent introduction to the life of Sylvia Plath, which got me into her poetry as well as the poetry of Ted Hughes, her husband.  I checked out the Modern Critical Views (edited by Harold Bloom) on Sylvia Plath and found an essay in there titled “Aspects of Energy in the Poetry of Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath” by D.F. McKay.  McKay introduces a conception of literary criticism which can be aligned with my concept of energonomics:  his goal is to discover/uncover the energy at the heart of the poem as a speech-act of meaning.  He writes in the introduction that

most modern experimental poets have been preoccupied with the charge of language, the energy with which meaning is conveyed.  In extreme instances, to extend the generalization, energy consumes meaning the way fire feeds on matter… (17).

Some poetry, according to McKay, “concentrates upon energy–its generation, control and unleashing,” and he suggests that we “keep another metaphor uppermost in mind:  meaning as a conductor of energy, serving to deliver it as a wire conducts electricity” (18).

 In my conception of energonomics, as in Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy, this process is not a metaphor but a literal, ontological fact.

4 February 2008 at 9:04 pm Leave a comment

The Poet as Energonomist

I just read Gary Snyder’s essay in the November 2007 issue of Shambhala Sun, titled “Writers and the War Against Nature.”  At one point he writes about reading science books on ecology and biology:

All those essays analyzing food chains and food webs–this was a science, I realized, dealing with energy exchange and the natural hierarchies of various living systems.  ‘When energy passes through a system, it tends to organize that system,’ someone wrote.  It finally came to me that this was about ‘eating each other,’ almost as a sacrament.  I wrote my first truly ecological poem, which explores the essential qualities of human foods:


Eating the living germs of grasses
Eating the ova of large birds
the fleshy sweetness packed around
the sperm of swaying trees

The muscles of the flanks and thighs of soft-voiced cows
the bounce in the lamb’s leap
the swish in the ox’s tail

Eating roots grown swoll
inside the soil.

Drawing on life of living
clustered points of light spun out of space
hidden in the grape.

Eating each other’s seed
ah, each other.

Kissing the lover in the mouth of bread:
lip to lip.

I need to read more of this man’s work…

24 November 2007 at 1:27 am 1 comment

Tiny Energies

I recently checked out a book of Gary Snyder’s poetry titled Left Out in the Rain:  New Poems 1947-1985.  Part VII of this book takes its title, “Tiny Energies,” from a Howard T. Odum quote:

For such situations of a few combinations found in messages, the energy content as a fuel is far too negligible to measure or consider compared to the great flows of energy in the food chain.  Yet the quality of this energy (tiny energies in the right form) is so high that in the right control circuit it may obtain huge amplications and control vast flows of power. (Environment, Power, and Society)

I invoked Odum by naming my sculpture after one of his key concepts–eMergy.  It doesn’t surprise me that Snyder was reading Odum back in the 1970s and incorporated his notion of “embodied energy” in this sequence of poems.  As a Zen monk and nature poet, these poems capture natural manifestations of small energies:  a dead dragonfly, bees, the crickets and meadowlarks who sung at Custer’s last battlefield.  In the following poem, Snyder invokes the religious form of the “gatha,” sacred texts of the Zoroastrian faith:

 Gatha for All Threatened Beings

Ah Power that swirls us together
Grant us bliss
Grant us the great release
And to all beings
Vanishing, wounded,
In trouble on earth,
We pass on this love
May their numbers increase

What if all of our prayers recognized the effects of how we harness energy?  What if all of our prayers acknowledged a genuine love of non-human life?

21 November 2007 at 11:08 pm Leave a comment

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